We don’t know for sure when exactly a teacher first used their hands to help a student in a yoga pose, but we can safely surmise that it became much more common with the first public class 100 years ago.*
Group teaching took off in early 20th century India, as hatha yoga grew in popularity alongside other forms of physical practice. It seems likely that the innovative teacher Tirumalai Krishnamacharya used his hands to transmit understanding, because two of his students – Pattabhi Jois, the founder of Ashtanga yoga, and BKS Iyengar – made hands-on assists and adjustments an integral feature of their methods, which have had a big influence on other modern styles of yoga.
However, not everyone wants to be adjusted or assisted when they come to a class. At triyoga, we provide a safe space for students to connect to their body, mind and spirit. If you do not want hands-on assistance, for whatever reason, we encourage you to tell your teacher, who will listen and respect you. We are also introducing consent cards, which will be available in every studio in all five of our centres from 7th November. Simply place the consent card on your mat, which will silently indicate that you would prefer not to be touched that day.
Physical contact still has a place in our teaching. Assists can be significant and they can be subtle. Many of our teachers here at triyoga are trained to give many different types of hands-on help, whether that is because they have studied anatomy, bodywork and movement, or because they have apprenticed with a senior teacher.
The use of touch by a teacher can also be very comforting, especially for those who are feeling isolated – from refugees in a community class to someone suffering from a broken heart. Moreover, it can be a very important part of the learning experience on the mat as these adjustments might help a student better understand the mechanical and energetic movements that lead to – and form – the state of an asana.
So what exactly is a teacher’s purpose in adjustments and assists, such as placing their hands on and giving directional guidance to a student’s sacrum in downward-facing dog (a common adjustment in Ashtanga or Vinyasa classes), or lightly clipping the thigh muscles in triangle pose (as might be done in an Iyengar yoga class)?
Well, we can turn to BKS Iyengar himself for that answer: “I give a touch to the part where the cells are still-born, so that there can be a little germination – so that the cells can have new life. I create life in those cells by this adjustment which I make by touching my pupils,” he wrote in The Tree of Yoga.
However, some found his approach a little harsh, even 50 years ago. Today, an onslaught of controversies surrounds physical touch, both in yoga and the wider culture, including politics, entertainment and education. The #metoo movement has provided a much-needed forum for survivors of sexual harassment and assault to speak up about inappropriate (or worse) encounters, some sadly with yoga teachers.
Some of us have experienced trauma in our lives and an adjustment or assist might be an upsetting trigger event, even in the safety of a yoga class. Or, we might not want to be touched if we are carrying an injury and feeling protective of our bodies. How we feel can change each day, so we invite you to tell us, either out loud or by using a consent card.
Yoga teachers can never really know what is going on beneath the surface and we want to empower you to have a say over your own body. Our commitment to you is that a triyoga teacher will never override that personal agency.
Genny is the Yoga Manager at triyoga, and teaches Vinyasa Flow, Ashtanga, triyoga hot and general yoga. She is an Authorised Level 1 teacher by the KPJAYI in Mysore and graduated with a distinction from triyoga’s BWY and Yoga Alliance-accredited teacher training programme.